We must root out privilege from the universities

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There is no more ringing New Labour challenge than the drive to expand university education.

There is no more ringing New Labour challenge than the drive to expand university education. On any measure, education is the single biggest factor in determining levels of social mobility. A society with an open education system is a society that rewards and exploits the talent of all to the fullest.

In this spirit, the Government pledged to work towards half of all school-leavers attending university – a vast shift when we consider that only one in 10 attended university 20 years ago. But such a target is, in itself, incomplete. If university education remains the preserve of the middle classes, expansion will merely entrench privilege. The crucial task is both to expand student numbers and ensure that students come from a wider range of backgrounds.

Last Thursday's A-level results have highlighted how much work is left to do. For all the Government's declared aim of half of all school leavers attending university, we are nowhere near that figure. Worse still: of those who do get to university, the overwhelming majority come from middle-class backgrounds. Here is a wholly unintended consequence of a badly designed policy – as student numbers have risen, the universities have become even more of a middle-class enclave then ever before. How can this be?

The superficial explanation is the introduction of student loans. It is certainly true that the prospect of thousands of pounds of debt is off-putting to many potential students who may worry about saddling themselves or their families with debt. In fact, no graduate is required to repay anything until their income reaches a certain threshold – but that fact needs to be made far clearer to applicants and their families, and responsibility for the failure to do so resides at the Government's door.

But the deeper problem is revealed by figures compiled by the Sutton Trust, which promotes wider access to education. Despite the second-class education that too many state school pupils still receive, more than two- thirds of pupils with three grade As at A-level last year came from the state sector. Yet only half of them were given places at one of the top 13 universities. Indeed, less than one in a hundred children from the poorest areas of the country went on to study at one of these universities.

The universities say that they are blameless, that the problem lies with the deplorable state of our education system, producing poor-quality candidates. No one would sensibly deny the critical importance of a genuine increase in standards. But the Sutton Trust figures also show that private school pupils with the same A-level grades as state school pupils were – on last year's figures – 25 times more likely to be given a university place.

So the universities themselves must shoulder responsibility for their failure to seek out the brightest candidates from poorer backgrounds. The Government must also accept that access to university education is in a mess. This year there are an extra 6,000 places. As we reveal today, the universities already concede that many of these will not be taken up.

This gives a perverse incentive to vice-chancellors, desperate not to lose funding for the extra places, to shovel more of the less talented students into the expanded system. Because the middle classes are far more heavily represented at the application stage than those from poorer homes, the result is further entrenched privilege. That is hardly what Mr Blair had in mind when he spoke so rousingly of his opportunity society.

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